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Harford school board approves $503.3 million operating budget, comes with 117 additional positions

Harford County Public Schools will start the next school year with more positions than the year prior for the first time in a decade after the Board of Education’s adoption Monday of a $503.3 million operating budget for fiscal year 2021.

“We are going to add back many positions that were cut last year, and for the first time in 10 years we’ll start the next school year with more positions than we had the year before, and so that is tremendous progress by this board,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said Monday.

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The unrestricted operating budget, which takes effect when the next fiscal year begins July 1, is $25.2 million more than the budget for the current year, a 5.3% increase. The Harford County government is contributing $276.9 million, a $20.4 million increase from the current year’s allocation, fully funding the school board’s request for local funds.

State funding stands at $218.9 million, an increase of more than $7.2 million from this year. The federal government has allocated $420,000, and funding from “other” sources is increasing by $505,040 to $5.1 million.

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“We were really encouraged by both the county executive and the County Council’s support for the funding this year,” Bulson told board members.

The increase in the “other” revenue category has nearly doubled from the increase of $255,040 proposed by the board when it adopted its budget request in February, ahead of when the county and state adopted their budgets.

The schools need $250,000 more in “other” revenue because that its the amount needed to properly cover the Medicare Part D prescription drug costs for retirees. That money will go to the school system’s Other Post-Employment Benefits, or OPEB trust, when the funds come in, Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, said.

The operating budget covers a net increase of 117.2 positions, including new positions and restoration of those cut in 2019 when the school system was developing its budget for the current fiscal year.

Twenty of those slots are for those who work in HCPS’ pre-kindegarten program, positions that had been funded by a state pre-K expansion grant, but the school system has since learned from the state that it would have to cover those positions in its operating budget next year — that comes at a cost of more than $1.4 million, according to Judd.

The school system is funding 22 additional classroom teaching positions next year, in elementary and secondary schools, 14 teachers and paraeducators in early learning programs and programs for students with special needs, plus four transportation staff to support the STRIVE program serving students with autism, according to budget documents.

The school system also plans to hire three additional people in its technology office, including two computer technicians and one programmer, plus spend $1.68 million on digital and distance learning, according to the budget.

“This is to address the ever-increasing needs in our Office of Technology, so we felt the need to include those [expenditures],” said Judd, who noted that much of the additional funding is covering leases of digital devices for students and teachers.

School officials were not able to fund every position they had initially requested for next year, and the budget reconciliation documents show a net of 27 slots that will not be covered, including a school counselor, some teachers, assistant principals and other support staff.

Officials did not want to reduce any positions that could harm the school system’s push to reduce class sizes, so those that were reduced involve specialists or teacher support roles, Bulson said. Many parents have expressed concerns in recent years about large classes and their impact on individual students’ ability to learn and teachers’ ability to manage their classrooms.

“That was one of the key things we prioritized as we went though making decisions about what to do as we adjusted the budget,” Bulson said.

The superintendent lauded the additional positions in next year’s budget, but he warned that might not be the case in the coming years, as the economic fallout from shutdowns this spring to reduce the spread of COVID-19 could affect local, state and federal revenues.

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“I think there’s some legitimate fear that revenues might take a dip statewide, federally and locally, and so the idea of bringing back as many positions as we initially requested in this budget might be problematic,” Bulson said.

The board also approved a $38.9 million restricted budget for grant-funded programs, an $18.6 million food service budget and a $34.08 million capital budget for next year.

Board members had few questions or comments on the budget, but student representative Christian Walker thanked Judd for her support over the past year in explaining the budget process to him.

“Ms. Judd has done a fantastic job of presenting this in a way that it can be understood, and that I can explain it to other people and that I can convey it to students,” Walker said.

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